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Article Published: 02 Apr 2017

Big Fish, Little Fish

“As far as we’re concerned, indie companies build awareness and audiences for opera in general,” says Canadian Opera Company’s Nina Draganic. She’s the director of COC’s Ensemble Studio and its Orchestra Academy, and now is overseeing a new two-year COC residency program for the Toronto indie opera company Against the Grain Theatre. The initiative indicates that COC doesn’t see the indie opera scene as a threat to its hegemony, but instead as a sign of a healthy operatic ecology. “Any support we give them supports us, as well,” Draganic says.

That wisdom can be seen in the relationships that big-budget opera companies — Opera Philadelphia, Fort Worth Opera, San Francisco Opera — have formed with New York-based Beth Morrison Projects. The independent production outfit puts together productions that typically land in multiple venues; in order for the business model to work, BMP needs presenting partners. “I don’t have a venue; I don’t have a lot of resources,” Morrison herself says. “Everything I do is a partnership.”

The closest major-company bond that Morrison has forged is with Los Angeles Opera. The two organizations have an ongoing agreement, resulting in at least one BMP production on the LA Opera roster each season. The current Los Angeles season included Ted Hearne and Mark Doten’s The Source in October, with the West Coast premiere of Kamala Sankaram and Susan Yankowitz’s Thumbprint to follow in June. Keeril Makan and Jay Scheib’s Persona is due next season.

Beth Morrison Projects’ Anatomy Theater, by David Lang and Mark Dion, at its 2016 world premiere in Los Angeles. Pictured: Marc Kudisch and Peabody Southwell
Beth Morrison Projects’ Anatomy Theater, by David Lang and Mark Dion, at its 2016 world premiere in Los Angeles. Pictured: Marc Kudisch and Peabody Southwell (photo: Craig T. Mathew/LA Opera)

The arrangement grew out of a cold call that LA Opera President/CEO Christopher Koelsch made to Morrison in 2013. “I saw that Beth was presiding over operas by emerging composers, and I wanted to make sure that work was heard in Los Angeles,” Koelsch says. “I wanted to come up with a model that would allow that to happen in an efficient way. The process has turned out to be remarkably easy.”

The BMP partnership forms part of Koelsch’s drive to make contemporary opera integral to his company’s offerings. Mainstage productions in recent seasons have included Akhnaten, Florencia en el Amazonas, The Ghosts of Versailles and Moby-Dick. The BMP productions, presented at the 250-seat venue REDCAT and forming a significant part of LA Opera’s alternative-stage “Off Grand” initiative, allow the company to offer cutting-edge work while achieving significant economies of scale.“By presenting rather than producing, our cost structure changes significantly,” says Koelsch. “If I were to try to do it myself, it would cost 10 times as much.”

The young audiences that the BMP shows attract may not be candidates for standard-repertory opera. “A lot of our ‘Off Grand’ audience will never set foot in The Abduction from the Seraglio,” Koelsch says. But Morrison says her shows have made a young crowd newly aware of LA Opera’s activities. “People in their 20s and 30s who came to my shows went on to see Akhnaten,” Morrison says. “It wouldn’t have been in their purview before.” Just as important, LA Opera’s recent commitment to contemporary opera has expanded its donor base, due in no small part to Morrison’s ties to the new-music community.

“They’ve turned themselves into exactly what a 21st-century company should be,” says Morrison. As Koelsch puts it: “Beth and I exist in each other’s ecosystems to our mutual benefit.”

The relationship between Canadian Opera Company and Against the Grain Theatre (AtG), by contrast, includes no production agreement; instead, it resembles nothing so much as a young artist program for administrators. Just as an opera-company program for young singers can help bridge the gap between conservatory training and a professional career, the COC residency is designed to help fledgling companies navigate the transition to professionally structured operations. “There’s a real need in opera for administrators to have hands-on training,” says Nina Draganic.

AtG was a logical candidate for the first residency. Founded in 2010, the company has made a splash in Toronto’s cultural scene with innovative, site-specific productions — like an adaptation of Le nozze di Figaro with the audience as wedding guests. But its infrastructure has by no means been keeping pace with its visibility. “The company was run on a lot of good will,” says Draganic.“The person who ran the publicity portfolio made it appear to be a much more solid organization than it was.”

Jonathan MacArthur
Jonathan MacArthur (photo: Brian Lee Topp)

Jonathan MacArthur, the company’s interim general manager, now works out of COC headquarters, giving AtG (in Draganic’s words) “an office, a mailing address and a phone number that isn’t somebody’s cellphone.” He meets weekly with Draganic to help her “curate” the residency, targeting key COC personnel who can provide mentorship; for instance, he convenes with Media Relations Manager Jennifer Pugsley to learn about the elements of PR. For MacArthur, a tenor by training, the residency is a crash course in the basics of administration. “It’s giving me a broader knowledge,” he says, “so I can work with my team at AtG and make sure our company operates like a ticking clock.”

When AtG’s two years are up, COC will find another indie company to take its place. “I suppose we won’t continue if the indie scene dries up,” says Draganic. “But I don’t anticipate that — it’s burgeoning!”

This article was published in the Spring 2017 issue of Opera America Magazine.